South Korea designed a 69-hour work week. Millennials and Generation Z had other ideas

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) Shorter work weeks to improve employee mental health and productivity may be becoming more common in some places around the world, but at least one country seems to have missed the memo.

South Korea’s government this week was forced to reconsider a plan that would have raised the cap on working hours to 69 a week from the current 52 after a backlash among millennial and Generation Z workers.

Workers in the East Asian powerhouse economy already have some of the longest working hours in the world – in 2021, according to the OECD, they will rank fourth behind only Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile – and overtime death (“gwarosa”) is believed to kill dozens of people each year.

Still, the government had supported the plan to raise the cap under pressure from business groups seeking to raise productivity, until it faced vocal opposition from the younger generation and unions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s senior secretary said Wednesday that the government is taking a new “direction” after consulting public opinion and said it is committed to protecting the rights and interests of millennials, Generation Z and non-unionized workers.

Raising the cap has been seen as a way to deal with the country’s looming labor shortage caused by the country’s declining birthrate, the lowest in the world, and an aging population.

But the move was widely criticized by critics who argued that tightening the screws on workers would only make matters worse; Experts often cite the country’s demanding work culture and growing disillusionment among younger generations as the underlying demographic problems.

Only as recently as 2018, due to high demand, the country had lowered the weekly limit from 68 hours to the current 52 hours, which received huge support in the National Assembly at the time.

Current law limits the workweek to 40 hours and up to 12 hours of compensated overtime — though in reality, critics say, many workers are under pressure to work longer hours.

“The proposal makes no sense… and is so far from what workers really want,” said Jung Junsik, 25, a university student from the capital Seoul, who added that even if the government makes a U-turn, many workers will be pressured to work beyond the law the maximum amount allowed.

“My own father works too much every week and there is no line between work and life,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is quite common in the workforce. Labor inspectors cannot monitor every workplace 24/7. People in South Korea (remain) vulnerable to deadly overtime.”

Pedestrians in downtown Seoul.

According to the OECD, South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours in 2021, far more than the OECD average of 1,716 and Americans of 1,767.

Long working hours – along with high levels of education and an increase in women entering the workforce – were once widely seen as fueling the country’s remarkable economic growth after the Korean War in the 1950s, when it transformed from a poor economy to one of the world’s richest.

But critics say the flip side of those long hours is evident in the numerous cases of “gwarosa” – “death from overwork” – in which exhausted people pay with their lives in heart attacks, workplace accidents or sleep-deprived driving. .

Haein Shim, a spokesman for the Seoul-based feminist group Haeil, said the country’s rapid growth and economic success had come at a cost and the proposal to extend working hours reflected the government’s “reluctance to recognize the realities of South Korean society”.

She said the “isolation and lack of community due to long hours and intense work hours” was already taking its toll on many workers, and “crazy working hours are further exacerbating the challenges faced by Korean women.”

Apart from the Gwarosa cases, the country also has the highest suicide rate among developed countries, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, he noted.

“It’s critical that the government (and businesses) address the pressing issues that are already affecting lives,” Shim said. “The need for support and a healthy work-life balance cannot be ignored if we want to ensure the well-being of individuals in the reality of the highest suicide rate in the OECD.”

According to government data, in 2017, the year before the government lowered the working time limit, hundreds of people died from overtime. Although the limit was cut to 52 hours, “gwarosa” cases continued to make headlines. Unions reported in 2020 that 14 delivery workers died due to overtime, sacrificing their mental health and well-being to keep the country alive during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to earlier reports by CNN’s Jake Kwon and Alexandra Field

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